Artists are taking the power back — and we mean to keep it this time
A specter is haunting the entertainment industry — the specter of decentralization.
Creators are in open revolt across film, TV and music. Years of dwindling residuals, exorbitant take rates by the large streaming platforms and an overall lack of transparency have gotten us here. Add to this devastating effects on income during COVID and the looming threat of artificial intelligence, and it has gotten to a breaking point. Industries that are unionized have taken to the picket lines, and those that aren’t — like music — are going a different route.
“Where the fuck is the money?”
Back in May, Snoop Dogg went off script at a Milken Institute panel discussing the Writers Guild of America strike. While the circumstances are different between the film/TV and music industries, they share common complaints: how the streaming services are underpaying artists and don’t provide transparency about how revenue is distributed.
Snoop Dogg Supports WGA Strike, Asks 'Where the F*ck Is the Money' in Streaming
Snoop Dogg, like anyone who values art and the people who actually make it, is throwing his support behind the…
“Somebody explain to me how you can get a billion streams and not get a million dollars? …That’s the main gripe with a lot of us artists is that we do major numbers … but it don’t add up to the money. Like, where the fuck is the money?”
The video of Snoop’s outburst started making the rounds again with the launch of the SAG-AFTRA strike, as actors and other workers in the industry decided to join the writers in solidarity as well as tackle their own ongoing issues with streaming services.
A new way with web3
Industry by industry, artists are up in arms. They are tired of their creations being exploited for the gain of a few. They are tired of their work being viewed as a commodity. They’re tired of middlemen. They’re tired of grinding away, day after day for little to no money.
At the heart of these ills are the streaming platforms. The tech industry has made such an art of extracting every penny of value across every art form that it makes the era of the old movie studios and record looks like the good old days, and more’s the pity.
The web2 era demonstrated that when storage, delivery, discovery and payments are tightly controlled by a small number of players, creators and consumers alike lose — trading convenience for freedom of choice, privacy and, ultimately, quality.
As Cory Doctorow brilliantly pointed out in his article The Enshittification of TikTok, big tech platforms follow a life cycle that starts by courting content producers, then squeezing them to increase their margins, and ultimately competing with them by offering their own content. It’s a vicious cycle that not only ultimately harms artists. Consumers suffer, too– think about the glut of undifferentiated content on any video streaming services; so much junk and not enough quality programming. The same with streaming music: only certain genres and styles of production survive the whims of the algorithm, which means that so many artists never get discovered and find their audience.
This is why artists, musicians in particular, having increasingly been taking the power back, routing around the existing streaming services, driving their own discovery and selling direct to their fans using NFTs and other web3 technologies. Making the music they want. Connecting with communities of music lovers. Keeping most of the value they create. Not having to feed the click machine with ridiculous dances and other bullshit. Without middlemen.
Artists in other industries are also looking into web3, like David Bianchi who has successfully sold short films as NFTs. But it’s early in those industries and as we are seeing, they are fighting a bigger fight right now with the ongoing strikes. Of course, as musicians, we stand with them. Their fight is our fight. Because it’s all about the same thing.
To Unionize or Not to Unionize?
Amidst the strike conversations, the web3 music fam is having an interesting discussion online. Here’s a take from Violetta Zironi, the undisputed queen of web3 music, that I think sums up what is happening.
It’s also got the Snoop clip, which is absolutely delightful and so on point.
For whatever reason, music hasn’t ever unionized to the degree of other entertainment industries, and the unions that do exist don’t seem to have much power. But creator battles in music have been legendary — Prince and Taylor Swift come to mind as recent examples of artists fighting the power of music labels’ predatory terms.
So here’s an interesting question: should musicians unionize? Labor unions exist to battle the concentrated power of corporations. But with web3, power is getting decentralized. Creators have freedom of choice as to how and where they market and distribute, and which services to use to create their smart contracts. It’s not perfect but it’s off to a very encouraging start.
So… maybe? But I’m not sure this is the right question. I think right now we have an opportunity to create a system where maybe we don’t need unions. Where power isn’t concentrated like that in the first place.
From Platforms to Tools
It’s an exciting time for web3 music technology. New music services are emerging that promise to enable creators to succeed. But they also threaten to duplicate the mistakes and overreaches of web2. One must always be mindful of the intent behind those services, and how interests are aligned.
Whether it’s the music labels of old that controlled the entire stack from creation to distribution — but at least provided value — or a streaming service that only offers distribution (or the illusion of it), we need to invert the pyramid. Artists have to be in control of the pipeline.
For that reason I believe we need to move from thinking about technology as platform to technology as tool.
A few weeks ago, I joined the resistance, quitting my day job to fully focus on my music projects. I wouldn’t have ever contemplated this without the tools of web3 that promise to let me control my own destiny. But I’m also mindful of what goes on with venture-funded tech companies. I’ve been on that side of it. Money changes things. The money that goes into venture companies is obsessed with scale. It needs billions of users participating in a click machine to justify the fund managers’ investment decisions — whether the business model makes sense or not. And definitely with no regard for whether it benefits the creators. And that’s why it likes platforms, because they concentrate power.
What artists need are tools: tools for discovery, distribution, monetization, revenue tracking. Period, full stop.
Meet the New Boss
There is so much promise in new web3 music services like Showtime, Hypeshot, and Pixelynx. But there have also been some disturbing noises. Sound.xyz only recently opened up their service to any creator — after months of frustration by some of us creators that it felt like the service was acting as a gatekeeper. Ooohlala stepped into a big landmine by sharing some web3 musicians’ work without permission. They’ve since apologized (asking for forgiveness later I guess).
The point is, artists should be highly skeptical of any web3 solution right now. We need to keep them honest. Otherwise it’ll be a matter of meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
If you’re still feeling rosy about this, just check out this take from Simon Frankau (@firstname.lastname@example.org)
There it is. Money does money. For all the rhetoric around the creator economy that fueled the growth of the big web3 platforms and marketplaces, the truth is out there for all to see. AI is the newest money machine, and money is going to follow it — regardless of what danger it may represent to creatives.
Despite the potential threat, the tools of web3 have so much to offer us. We have to fight for everything going forward, but our odds are looking good.
The creator revolution is here, and it’s starting with music.